A Permanent Member of the Family, by Russell Banks *****

Nobody writes like Russell Banks. His short story collection has the harsh beauty of a Yankee winter. I was lucky enough to get my copy courtesy of Goodreads.com’s first reads program. Tales of loneliness, alienation, disorientation or sheer, stark horror are the writer’s stock in trade. His characters, ordinary working people so real that they stand before the reader, live lives of disappointment, near-misses, and sometimes terrible endings.

Think of “The Lottery”. There you have it, but in a contemporary setting.

Why read stories grim enough to bruise the psyche? What keeps us coming back once our eyes and hearts are seared by the cruel world he exposes? Maybe it’s because he recognizes the working men and women who make the world go around, or maybe we revel in real-life tragedy: that could have been us. As we close the cover and walk away, life seems a little sweeter. Just enough poignancy is injected into his tales to make us treasure our lives, without giving way to corny sentimentality. And there is never a stereotype anywhere. Banks has too much respect for the working class to let that happen.

Occasional moments of wry humor, such as the “invisible” product being marketed by the traveling preacher, break up the tension to some degree.

I have read other reviewers who feel burned out by Banks because of the painful quality of his stories. If like me, you love great writing but feel the need of a break from the sorrow there, this volume is perfect. Read a short story; then go get another book by someone else that’s a little less dark and foreboding. Come back and read another short story by Banks when you are prepared for it. With the short stories, it is easy to find a place to pause, then return.

Banks has been translated into twenty different languages, and he is widely recognized as one of the best writers in the world. Don’t let this opportunity to read him pass you by!

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